ATLANTA — An Atlanta rapper was shot dead in a car outside a hospital where his fiancée was due to give birth in what prosecutors say was an elaborate murder-for-hire plot involving gang members, a former Russian mobster and a basketball star.
Melvin Vernell III – known as Lil Phat – was killed after he stole 10 pounds of marijuana, prosecutors said. They’ve indicted five people, including a rapper they say belongs to an Alabama gang, a former Russian mafia member turned informant and a college basketball standout from California.
Vernell, who was 19 when he died, stole the drugs from Decensae Xavier White, a San Francisco State University point guard known as Griz, and Gary Bradford, a rapper who goes by El Dorado Red, prosecutors said. Angry and seeking revenge, the pair hired Deandre Washington and Maurice DeWayne Conner to kill him for $10,000, prosecutors said.
Washington and Conner tracked Vernell to the hospital on the outskirts of Atlanta by using GPS coordinates given to them by White and Bradford, who had gotten the information from Mani Chulpayev, who runs a business leasing expensive luxury cars and had rented out the car Vernell was driving the day he died, prosecutors said.
Defense attorneys flatly deny that version of events.
At a June 13 bond hearing, prosecutor Sheila Ross and defense attorneys painted dramatically different portraits of the men accused.
Chulpayev, 38, was convicted in the late 1990s on charges related to his involvement in Russian organized crime and then became an FBI informant, said his original lawyer in the case, George Plumides. Plumides told ABC News in May that an FBI handler asked for and received from Chulpayev gifts of cash, jewelry, tickets to sporting events, hotel rooms and the use of luxury cars.
The FBI’s Atlanta field office has said the agency took immediate action to address those accusations and that the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General was investigating.
Plumides, who withdrew from the case after prosecutors objected to a perceived conflict, said the FBI agent tried to keep local police investigating Vernell’s death away from Chulpayev. But that actually complicated things for him because Chulpayev was eager to talk to clear his name and offered to take a lie detector test, Plumides said.
Plumides said White had invested in Chulpayev’s luxury car business, which is how he had the tracking information – not because Chulpayev gave it to him to kill Vernell, Plumides said.
Ross said White was the one with a direct connection to Chulpayev and conspired with Bradford to have Vernell killed. White is not a gang member but associates with them, Ross said.
Bradford is a member of a violent street gang known as the Bang Get Money mafia, or BGM, out of Montgomery, Ala., and has previous convictions, Ross said. The 34-year-old says in a video, “If you cross the BGM, we will kill you,” Sandy Springs police Detective J.T. Williams testified at a bond hearing.
Lawyers for Bradford say he is a rapper with a registered company called BGM and that all the tough talk in his songs and the violent imagery in his videos are just part of his image.
Ross said Washington is also a member of the BGM gang with a prior murder charge that was dropped because of a lack of cooperation from witnesses, Ross said. He’s the one who fatally shot Vernell, she said.
At the bond hearing in last month, the judge granted bond only to White. The other three remain in jail. The fifth defendant, Maurice Conner, is in jail in Alabama.